November 17, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
American pilots cannot go into combat with aircraft that can’t be relied on, nor should they have to. However, that’s the scenario they’re facing unless we follow through with near-term action proposed by the Air Force and Defense Department leadership.
Several years ago, the Air Force’s purchase of the F-22 Raptor was cut drastically when some defense officials decided the fleet was no longer the best option for U.S. air superiority. Now we watch as threats from China and Russia grow stronger every day. It’s a matter of life and death that our military has combat-ready aircraft in terms of both capability and numbers. That’s why the Air Force’s decision to invest in the F-15EX fighter is important, especially considering the state of the F-35 program, which continues to struggle in critical areas including functionality, reliability, and affordability.
Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, stated that the “F-15EX is designed to evolve from day one” and that it’s “digital backbone, open missions systems and generous payload capacity fit well for our [the Air Force] vision for future net-enabled warfare.”
Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight highlights some of the nagging issues with fielding the fifth-generation F-35, commenting that deficiencies are still “definitely cause for concern.” He further said that “they are going to have an impact on how the aircraft performs…” and that “every design flaw has a potential issue on the mission.”
On reliability, the F-15 has a proven airframe. It is one of the free world’s go-to systems on duty in the Middle East, on air dominance patrols in European skies and homeland defense. Gen. Mike Holmes noted that the “F-15EX is the most affordable and immediate way to refresh the capacity and update the capabilities provided by our aging F-15C/D fleets. The F-15EX is ready to fight as soon as it comes off the line.”
The Air Force’s new chief of staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, released a report in August outlining the need to transition into the next generation of air dominance. He stated that “unless we accelerate the changes we need, the U.S. Air Force will be ill-prepared to compete, deter, and win. Urgent actions are required now to secure the U.S. Air Force’s continued ability to deliver global effects on strategically-relevant timelines.” The F-35 will continue as a major element in U.S. defense strategy, but it cannot currently meet its mission demand. The F-15EX is ready today. It is a compliment to F-35, filling critical capability shortfalls.
Complimentary capability and affordability are included in the Air Force’s fixed-price contract with F-15 maker Boeing. Thant means, no matter what, taxpayers will not be left holding the check for more than the agreed-upon price. The F-15EX has a predictable cost per flying hour of $29,000 and low transition costs between the older F-15 models and the new EX. By comparison, the F-35 has a lifetime cost of more than $1 trillion, which includes a healthy $44,000 price tag per flight hour based on a troubled logistics support system.
Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein noted that he “can’t afford to not have the capacity to do the job and the missions.” The F-35 will continue to develop and incrementally attain full mission capability. In the meantime, the F-15EX will deliver in months instead of years. Requiring minimal upgrade training for both pilots and aircraft sustainment personnel, the Air Force will modernize its air dominance fleet with the F-15EX while maintaining a high state of mission readiness.
Balancing the demands of the future with the critical needs of now requires the Air Force to put forth a modern, mixed fleet composed of various complementary capabilities. The F-15EX is a critical component necessary for maintaining America’s fighter fleet for years to come.
Col. (ret) Steve Mosier served nearly 27 years in the Air Force flying F-4 and F-15s in TAC, PACAF and USAFE with over 3,500 hours of flight time; in addition, he was the TAC HQ F-15 requirements officer, the chief of the Checkmate Group in the Pentagon, and lastly 15 years at MCAIR/Boeing.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.